Ahead of its third season, The Sopranos had a whole storyline planned out in which Tony Soprano’s mother would testify against him in court, a nasty final twist in what had been a toxic relationship. When Livia Soprano actress Nancy Marchand died before filming however, they had to quickly write her character out, cobbling together existing footage and dialogue Marchand had shot for a brief scene in which she argues with her son Tony before dying off-screen.
It was a little odd, and the CGI used to repurpose the footage may not age well, but was permissible given the circumstances and kind of perfect in how their relationship ended as it endured, with a petty squabble.
Star Wars’ new standalone film Rogue One, however, takes a bold new technological step in dealing with the problem of dead actors but very much alive characters, and it verges on the dystopian.
*Spoilers ahead, although the CGI stunt was revealed some time ago*
Grand Moff Tarkin, the eventual Death Star Commander in the Star Wars timeline, was such a key figure during Rogue One’s setting that he couldn’t just be ignored or mentioned in passing. Director Gareth Edwards could have recast the character - actor Peter Cushing having died in 1994 - but instead had his likeness replicated through VFX.
Tarkin is initially glimpsed in a glass reflection in Rogue One and I thought they would leave it at that - subtle and effective - but, instead, he spins around in a huge ‘reveal’ moment and we see what is almost certainly the best computer-generated replica of a human in film to date. The character doesn’t have that waxy CGI skin you often get, and the “blood, sweat and tears” that animation studio Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) put into it pays off, the “Cushing” cameo not knocking you out of the narrative anywhere near as hard as CGI characters so often do.
It is all very impressive and a thrill for Star Wars fans (the not so well well-executed other CGI character at the film's close less so), but the moment is underpinned by some quite terrifying existential questions.
Though Peter Cushing doesn’t get an IMDb credit for the appearance of his likeness, his estate presumably agreed to it, and you can imagine him probably being okay with the stunt for something as light-hearted and beloved as Star Wars. But how far will this trend go?
Holby City actor Guy Henry did the motion capture for Cushing playing Tarkin, and the idea of a soap actor one day impersonating you with near perfect verisimilitude is an unsettling one. No matter how good a job the new actor does, there’s something exploitative about having your exact likeness used. Going back to The Sopranos, will we one day have to endure an ABC sitcom actor doing his best James Gandolfini?
“'Like, what do we do? Do we cast someone who looks like them? Do we not have them? Do we just hear about them?'” Edwards told the Radio Times with regards to the Tarkin problem, and I think the answer is probably that you do re-cast the role. You have to trust that audiences have the mental capacity to accept a different actor in the same role and remember that one of the main joys of cinema is actually watching people act and put themselves into a character, not just cloning them.
The idea that we might have to start thinking about how we’re represented after death and taking steps to ensure we don’t have our identities passed off in ways we wouldn’t want is a big deal and is much bigger than cinema. It’s very possible, for instance, that loved ones will one day have pretty perfect replicas of ourselves made as a means of comfort, and I don’t know how I feel about that (it’s probably one for Black Mirror to explore).
For the very famous, these decisions are already here, with Robin Williams having had to place the rights to his name and likeness with a trust prior to his death, protecting the use of his image until 2039 (when we'll probably have to witness him used like a puppet in another Jumanji remake).
[SPOILERS] 13 scenes from Rogue One's trailers cut from the film
[SPOILERS] 13 scenes from Rogue One's trailers cut from the film
1/13 'I rebel'
Straight off the bat, that instantly infamous line from Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso - "This is a rebellion, isn't it? I rebel" - is missing from the final cut. Probably a good thing, considering nobody needs Jyn's entire character motivation spelled out in quite such obvious terms.
2/13 Moody Orson Krennic
This brilliantly moody shot from the film's teaser never makes it into the final cut, but there's a good chance it was never intended to, having all the hallmarks of footage deliberately shot for the trailer.
3/13 Moody Jyn Erso
The same goes for this look at Jyn Erso in her Imperial disguise, which definitely has the look of a promotional shot to it.
4/13 'What will you become?'
The look at Jyn's Imperial outfit coincides with the final line of a cut monologue from Saw Gerrera: "What will you become?" The confusing part here is that Saw is seen with the close-cropped hair he sports only in the prologue scenes, when Jyn is only a child. When she visits him in Jedha, his hair is much fuller and he's sporting a beard. So, was this speech somehow originally delivered to Galen Erso in a cut prologue segment? In the context of Galen's work with the Empire and his later attempts to evade them, Saw's words would make a lot more sense.
5/13 And Moody Darth Vader
Potentially another promo shot, considering this was used as the very first reveal of Darth Vader in the trailers.
6/13 Krennic and Vader
However, this shot also shows a cut scene between Krennic and Vader, in which the former talks about the "power we are dealing with here".
7/13 'The captain says you are a friend. I will not kill you'
K-2SO has many similar lines directed to Jyn throughout the film, but they're a lot less sinister than this one.
8/13 Captured rebel pilots
This shot from Jedha is missing. It doesn't exactly add anything to the story, but it's an added touch of grit which sets the tone nicely in the trailers.
9/13 'Good.' 'Good.'
A cut moment between Jyn and Cassian, though it's a little hard to tell where this comes from - there's no moment where Jyn sits as co-pilot on the U-wing, since it's usually K-2SO in the seat.
10/13 Jyn faces off against a TIE fighter
What's interesting is that this shot of Jyn limping across the Scarif communications tower is, of course, in the final film. It's just that the TIE fighter is entirely absent. Was this a cut moment? Was Krennic piloting that thing? Or was it even just cut into the trailer to keep audiences off the scent?
11/13 Krennic on the Scarif beaches
And what about this great shot of Krennic marching amongst the dead? The set-up and lighting seem to imply he survives the initial battle without getting shot by Cassian, and is on the ground when the Death Star destroys Scarif - if that's indeed the source of the glow in the background.
12/13 Jyn and Cassian in the Scarif battle
In fact, the trailer footage seems to hint at a drastically different ending, which may point to what exactly got changed during the re-shoots. We see multiple shots of Jyn and Cassian running along the Scarif beach with the Death Star plans. Considering the battle is still in full swing, it suggests the archives and the communications tower may have been separate locations in the original version.
13/13 Jyn, Cassian, and K-2SO running through Scarif base
And here, again, we see Cassian, Jyn, and K-2SO running with the data plans through the Scarif base. That means the droid wasn't originally meant to die (or whatever happens to droids) defending the archive room.